The last few years in California’s Siskiyou County have been tense, with the sheriff and elected officials sounding the alarm about an influx of cannabis growers, claiming their illicit operations are sucking up water during a time of severe drought and making the rural community unlivable.
By June 2020, Ray Haupt, a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors, was fed up. He wrote to a colleague about “an explosion of water trucks” in an area home to the growers, many of them members of Southeast Asia’s Hmong ethnic group. The problem with the Hmong, Haupt wrote in an email reviewed by VICE News, was getting “out of control.”
“Complete lawlessness,” Haupt wrote. “I am fearful that we are losing a portion of our county and being turned into a no go zone, similar to what we see in foreign countries like Europe where Sharia Law has replaced local governance.”
The “Sharia Law” email is now just one piece of evidence in a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed this week by the ACLU of Northern California, alleging Haupt and other Siskiyou County officials have "engaged in a sweeping campaign to harass and intimidate” members of the Hmong community. Public records from the county obtained by the ACLU allegedly show “widespread racial profiling in traffic stops,” along with systematic efforts “to dispossess Asian Americans of their land” by slapping their properties with liens.
Siskiyou County is already facing another lawsuit from members of the Hmong community over efforts to restrict their access to water. In that case, filed June 2021, the Hmong won an injunction temporarily blocking the county from enforcing laws aimed at halting deliveries of water in large tanker trucks to an area called Mount Shasta Vista. Shortly after Haupt sent his “Sharia Law” email in 2020, the ACLU notes, he and other county supervisors proposed the water ordinances, which specifically targeted Mount Shasta Vista and allegedly led to people who live there losing food crops and having their animals die of thirst.
Mount Shasta Vista is predominantly Hmong and full of rugged properties where residents tend to live in RVs or improvised dwellings while farming weed, with more than 5,000 greenhouses dotting the subdivision by the sheriff department’s count. Growing a few plants for personal use is now legal in California, but Siskiyou County has banned commercial cultivation and officials have been cracking down using tactics that the ACLU alleges are racist and unconstitutional.
Haupt declined to comment on the allegations, saying in an email to VICE News that he’s been busy coordinating the response to an ongoing wildfire in the county, which has prevented him from reviewing the ACLU’s complaint.
“I have lost one community this week and have three more threatened under evacuations,” Haupt said. “I hope you understand my immediate time commitments.”
Last August, VICE News visited Siskiyou County and Mount Shasta Vista in the aftermath of a wildfire that burned multiple properties and led to the death of a 35-year-old Hmong man who was shot by police during the evacuation effort. The killing triggered protests, where Hmong residents also voiced outrage over the way they had been treated by Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue, whose deputies had been aggressively enforcing the water ordinances and allegedly harassing Hmong people and other Asian drivers with unjustified traffic stops.
In June, Siskiyou County’s district attorney cleared the officers involved in the shooting, issuing a report that said the victim, Sobleej Kaub Hawj, was armed, had amphetamines in his system, and was hauling 132 pounds of weed in his truck. Hawj pointed his gun and fired one round at the officers while “lunging” at them with his pickup, according to the DA’s report. Hawj’s wife and three kids watched the incident unfold from a separate vehicle, and an attorney for the family has told VICE News they feel the shooting was unjustified. The attorney, Nancy Ly, declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit as the Hawj family considers its own litigation.
In the case filed this week, the ACLU says it has obtained data that shows the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department has been stopping Asians roughly 12 times as often as other drivers. Asians account for less than 2 percent of the population in the 85 percent white county, but they were “nearly 25 times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white residents,” the ACLU found, noting that nearly three-quarters of those encounters ended with no citation or arrest, proof of “a pattern of stops conducted without reasonable suspicion.”
While the traffic stop data had been submitted as evidence in the separate ongoing case about the water ordinances, ACLU attorney John Thomas Do told VICE News the new lawsuit is aimed at getting a federal judge to intervene more broadly against Siskiyou County.
“The county has engaged in a more widespread systematic campaign to harass the Asian community and the Hmong community in other ways beyond trying to deprive them of basic water needs,” Do said. “The goal of the lawsuit is to hopefully end this campaign of harassment we find the county and sheriff to be engaged in. Certainly the county has a right to enforce traffic laws, but they need to do so in an equitable and even-handed manner.”
Beyond the traffic stops, the ACLU alleges the county has been systematically using property liens to push Asian property owners into foreclosure. The county allows for landowners hosting unauthorized cannabis grows to be hit with a $500 citation for a first offense, but that can quickly escalate to fines of $5,000 per day, plus other citations for building and water code violations. If the debt isn’t paid within 90 days, the county can issue a lien against the property, which can be then foreclosed, enabling it to be sold to pay off the debt.
These hefty fines and liens have been used “almost entirely against Asian American-owned properties,” the ACLU says, including instances where the county was demanding more than the assessed value of the land. In one case involving an ACLU plaintiff, the county has imposed fines and penalties of over $50,000 on a parcel worth $15,000. Altogether, according to the ACLU, since January 2021, 80 percent of the liens in the county (around 40 total) have been filed against Asian property owners.
The purpose of the liens is to “drive out” the Hmong, the ACLU alleges, a view shared by Allison Margolin, the attorney leading the separate lawsuit over the water ordinances.
“It’s all types of violations, things that sound as mundane as fence ordinances that set a maximum height of six feet,” Margolin told VICE News. “All of those have been used in addition to water ordinances to basically drive out the Hmong by zoning them out of existence.”
Haupt’s “Sharia Law” email was obtained by the ACLU through a public records request and cited as evidence that the county's campaign against the Hmong is racist. (The Hmong are not Muslim; they are mostly first and second-generation refugees who fled persecution after their families fought on the U.S. side during the Vietnam War.) The campaign by Haupt and other county officials, the ACLU says, “has its roots in anti-Asian racism in Siskiyou dating back to the 1800s,” when white Gold Rush-era settlers discriminated against Chinese immigrants.
In an affidavit filed in response to the water ordinance lawsuit, Haupt defended the laws.
“The ordinances are necessary to further legitimate county interests, including water conservation, public safety and the deterrence of criminal activities,” Haupt said earlier this year in March. “The focus and purpose of the ordinances in question was always the protection of groundwater resources by cannabis cultivators.”
Other public comments by county officials were also cited in the ACLU’s complaint, including quotes by Sheriff LaRue from an interview he gave to VICE News last year when asked about the Hmong and Mount Shasta Vista. LaRue did not respond to a request for comment on the new lawsuit.
“It’s like a third world country out there and that cannot be OK,” LaRue said last year. “Forget about cannabis, it’s just about quality of life and how people are living out there.”
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